Doorstep recitals and bespoke gigs: how classical music is adapting to the new normal

Flora Willson
·7-min read
<span>Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA</span>
Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

Chris North, a keen concertgoer, was only a few minutes away when he heard the news. “I got off the motorbike at the Barbican, ready to walk up to LSO St Luke’s – then a phone message said [Boris] Johnson had cancelled everything.”

It was lunchtime on 31 July, fewer than 24 hours before the UK government’s planned move into stage four of its “roadmap” for the safe return of the performing arts in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. That move would allow indoor performances (with a socially distanced audience) for the first time since March.

Just that morning, two major classical venues – Wigmore Hall in London and Snape Maltings in Suffolk – had unveiled series of ticketed live events, their starry lineups assembled at unprecedentedly short notice after the government’s announcement a fortnight earlier of its plan to enter stage four.

The prime minister’s lunchtime statement postponed the reopening of all “higher-risk settings”, including indoor performances, for at least a fortnight. The Snape Maltings series was shelved immediately. “It’s hugely disappointing,” its chief executive, Roger Wright, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the next morning. “It’s obviously very hard for us all in a stop-start environment, much as we understand the need for safety.” The Wigmore Hall events – not due to start until 13 September – remain on the slate, but may be reincarnated as “empty Hall broadcasts”, while a one-off live concert on 1 August was scrapped.

Could livestreaming be the new live? We have easier access to more music than ever before. The internet is awash with archive footage of celebrated concerts, DIY multitracking and newly filmed performances from musicians and ensembles all over the world. But North is adamant: “It’s not a substitute.” Since retiring as a nurse a few years ago, he has become a live-music devotee (“Very often I’ll do one or two concerts a day”) and, as a BBC Proms season-ticket holder, “the thing that I’m missing most is standing shoulder to shoulder with people in that environment”.

North’s concertgoing habits may be exceptional, but his acute sense of loss is shared by many others – not least performers. The soprano and composer Héloïse Werner was involved in a culture department pilot performance at the boutique Cockpit theatre in London in late July, having spent lockdown working on commissions and sharing videos on social media of her own “coronasolfège”. Her videos have spawned an enthusiastic following, but she points out: “There’s no feedback that you get straightaway in a room. Hearing people react in real time is vital to performance and affects so much the way you perform.”

Werner’s solo outing at the Cockpit took place under strict conditions: she had to keep at least three metres away from a socially distanced audience of 22. But it was still a revelation. “That sense of building up the tension and being in control on stage of how you can talk to your audience and move them in a particular way was something I’d missed so much.”

On the other side of the performer/audience divide, the impossibility of 360-degree immersion in performance is what I have missed most. Yes, I have enjoyed numerous streamed performances and online archive gems. But my desk serves up a no-frills listening experience, vulnerable to nearby DIY projects and car alarms. It has been a reminder that one of the great pleasures of live performance is not only hearing music, but also feeling its power as visceral resonance – as a physical sense of vitality shared with others.

It was precisely in search of such immediacy that, on 1 August, I booked into the first culture clinic” at Kings Place in London – a day of short, “one-to-one, socially distanced consultations” with musicians. The branding is careful to distinguish them from the currently outlawed public performances.

Hearing people react in real time is vital to performance and affects so much the way you perform

Héloïse Werner

Perhaps inevitably, it was a strange and sobering experience. My first “consultation” was with the jazz pianist Elliot Galvin, who asked how my lockdown had been and said he counts himself lucky because “my flat has windows”. His short improvisation emerged from a repetitive lick lying under one hand, then blossoming into slower luminosity before returning to agitated passagework. It was a treat, particularly on a Steinway at such close quarters – but the window comment has haunted me since.

The violinist Elena Urioste and her husband, the pianist Tom Poster, were stationed elsewhere. Like Werner, they had channelled their energies into social media under lockdown, posting daily “musical jukebox” videos from their living room. But, as they explained, after playing a short new commission and a Dvorak miniature: “There’s nothing like that exchange with people.”

The folk musician Ewan McLennan would presumably agree, although, as he confessed, chatting between three gently melancholic songs (including a starkly beautiful guitar-only version of Amazing Grace): “If someone had told me a year ago that I’d be playing to audiences of three or four, I’d have thought something had gone horribly wrong.”

And, of course, it has. It was exhilarating to hear professional musicians perform live again – and remarkable that it was free of charge, courtesy of an Arts Council emergency grant. But safe distancing and the gruesome realities of arts funding in the wake of Covid-19 mean that such an experience is available only to a lucky few.

Outside London, particularly away from big-name venues and organisations, the pandemic has hit at least as hard. Lucy Hewson, a freelance violinist, has been based in Bath for the past 15 years. “You make your own opportunities,” she says. “I guess there is funding if you can find it, but I’ve looked and it’s really difficult.” As lockdown started, Hewson “had one of the best years planned. And the whole lot just crashed within a week. It was devastating. I felt useless; I lost my identity as a musician.”

But Hewson remains positive. She is convinced that, ultimately, the Covid-19 upheavals are an opportunity. In June, she and another musician, Rebecca Prosser, started Concert on Your Doorstep, which offers 30-minute socially distanced concerts outside care homes and sheltered housing in and around Bath. They have given 24 concerts to hundreds of people standing in their doorways, sitting outside or listening through open windows. The response? “The intensity with which people are listening was a real surprise. I think there’s a real hunger for it,” she says.

The challenge, predictably, is funding. Hewson and Prosser decided not to request a fee (“It’s opened doors, actually”), but have made some money through donations. With funding, though, musicians like her could be playing in numerous community spaces “to people who wouldn’t even come to concert halls”.

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Only time will tell what the next government announcement will say about live indoor performance. But as more news emerges about redundancies at major venues, freelancers and smaller organisations will be crucial to music’s future in the UK. So will an unprecedented level of flexibility for an industry used to planning years in advance; Werner was booked for her pilot performance at just four days’ notice. “It’s not necessarily the way I’d want it to be all the time,” she says. “But there’s a sense that we’re making things happen with what we can do right now.”

Hewson is similarly upbeat: “Maybe we have to be more prepared to get up and go the next week and see what happens,” she suggests. “Things will open and close, won’t they? We’ve just got to learn to be flexible and use what resources we’ve got.” So what next for Concert on Your Doorstep? “I’ve put in for some funding for a gazebo, because we’re hoping to keep going through the autumn. We’ll just take our second-best violins and off we go.”